What is the Origin of the Word Compete?

wondrous memeDo you like to learn about the history and meaning of words?  Then you’re in the right place. Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme for people who like to dig into words.  Visit Kathy at Bermuda Onion to learn more.

My word this week won’t be new to you, but I bet it’s etymology will surprise you.  I recently attended a workshop given by David Benzel called “To Push or Not to Push: What Your Child Needs to Succeed.”  David founded the non-profit organization Growing Champions for Life which offers education to sports parents on how to foster a healthy relationship with their children.

David offered practical advice for how to parent without pressure, including:

  • focus on effort and progress more than talent or results
  • all competitive events end with either success or a lesson (note: not failure)
  • motivation comes from inside, so we can’t motivate our children, but we can inspire them

All this was great, and the mom in me loved what he had to say (and feared that I have some characteristics of the “Tiger Parent”.  Oh dear.)

But the word nerd in me perked up when he ended his presentation talking about a word we hear so much in sports: compete.  Especially in our country, people use “battle language” when they talk about competition.

Beat, destroy, annihilate, kill.

But the word comes from a very different place.

compete: verb from Latin competere to seek together, from Latin com- petere  to come together, agree, to go to

David suggested that we should help our children see how to use competition to strive together to improve.  This especially applies to situations that have an individual focus within a team setting, like swimming, track, or wrestling, but this approach can work anywhere, in sports, school, and among siblings.

Wow.  To strive together.  That sounds so much better than “attack”, doesn’t it?

Word Nerd Workout

Did you know the origin of the word “compete”?  How can its etymology change the way you think and talk about competition with your kids/self/friends?

Thanks for getting nerdy with me!




Julia Tomiak

I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and Wordsmithstudio.org.


  1. I LOVE this. A friend and I talked about this today and I came to look it up. I am a word nerd and love that. WOW, we must change our minds in this direction if we are to “win”, together, the political war we are in right now, in America. And in the world.
    First, we need to learn that “competing” to be in front of everyone, or above everyone, or get the gold alone takes us to a lonely place and that can not last. It is only in group and community that we are strong in a lasting way… like the birds who take turns pulling the group along for a short time each while remaining very close, supported by the family, each member taking his or her position, but rotating… for the duration of the trip. Rotation, not winning to the exclusion of the silver or bronze or the people who have less; together to excel.
    Thanks for this. I am posting something about this on Facebook today.

    1. What beautiful thoughts, and so necessary in this increasingly hostile atmosphere we live in. Thank you for sharing, and I’m glad you found my piece inspiring. Let’s keep doing what we can to build each other up. 🙂

  2. Wow, great idea on how to compete using the original context! It reminds me of “discipline,” which has Latin roots referring to training and educating (rather than punishing).

    1. I love this, Jennifer, and I didn’t know about it. Thanks for sharing. Someone else advised that I should look up the meaning for “coach” too. More blog posts brewing…

  3. This is fantastic! Love those tips and I’m so glad to learn the origin of the word – it hooks up wonderfully with my next post about our soccer season. Thank you so much!

  4. I think ‘David’ has a very good philosophy about competition. I didn’t know the origin but I remember in sports events that “you were in it to win it” and if you didn’t win it, which I invariably didn’t, one had a sense of failure and disappointment. That extreme competitiveness was still there when my sons were at school but I think and I hope that has changed by now. My daughter didn’t feel so pressured and I don’t know if it was the school’s philosophy (different school ethos) or times had changed.

  5. Julie, you have given me so much to think about – and talk about. Although our family also loves sports, I’ve always hated the battle language. Focusing on a more positive definition for “compete” is hopeful.

  6. Julia,

    Very interesting “take” on compete, which denotes cooperation rather than fighting against the other. It’s the TEAM approach: Together Everyone Achieves More. 🙂

  7. Oh, wow, I LOVE this and will be sharing it with my kiddos! I come from a big sports family and plan to get my own young children involved in activities as well. There’s such stress in sports these days (I have a teenage baseball player and they put a lot of pressure on the kids), and this is a lovely thing to be reminded of 🙂

    1. I was totally surprised by the meaning, but it’s a great conversation starter with my kids. It helps focus on the lessons that can be learned from competition, instead of just victory or defeat.

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